Objects and identity in Japan
We recently hosted a talk by David Slater , who teaches anthropology at Sophia University, alongside Haruka Danzuka from Todai and Robin O’Day, a post-doc from Tsukuba. David and his team gave a fascinating account of their involvement with the communities in Tohoku since 3/11.
After providing some basic manual labour support in the clean-up phase, David and his students became involved with interviewing Tohoku residents, many living in temporary housing accommodation, either in the region or in Tokyo. You can watch some of those interviews at their site, tohokukaranokoe.org (Voices from Tohoku).
Of particular interest was the team’s account from Tohoku of the importance of the family photo album. Their account illustrates the importance of this specific object in defining relationships, identities, a sense of well-being and allowing for the ability to move forward. Slater’s work in Tohoku showed just how disrupted our sense of the world can become when valued objects go missing.
For the bereaved, family albums and photographs were desperately sought out amid the wreckage, not only as a visual reminder of lost loved ones and to help deal with grief, but to ‘take care of’ the departed spirit. In the Buddhist belief system, broken bodies and damaged photographs have the potential to interrupt the cycle of life and death because they are no longer gotaimanzoku (‘without physical defect’), suspending a person in a state of trauma. There are parallels with the animist aspects of Shinto-ism: as a tree may contain a nature spirit, so a photograph may hold the spirit of a person. Washing stations were set up across Japan to try to salvage and clean up family photos retrieved from mud-covered family photo albums and, where possible, restore images and return them to living relatives. Those which could not be saved from the effects of water, dirt and chemicals were stored in the ‘gomen’ box — the ‘forgive us’ box. An art exhibition made up of a large montage of these disfigured images from the gomen box became the subject of some controversy. Though the curators’ view was that this was an illustration of the universal, collective experience of death and loss, others regarded it as a violation to the photos and the humans that were once visible within those photos. As one villager put it, “There’s someone in there.” （誰かが入っているよ！）
This account of the photograph as fetish (a material item invested with supernatural powers) chimed with many other significant, if less poignant, everyday examples of meaning invested in objects in Japan. Meishi (business cards) are received using both hands (and a bow) as the card is the embodiment of its owner; writing utensils, fine paper and personal hand-writing remain widely used for any significant social document, including CV’s and job applications; regional mascots have been successfully used for the cultural and economic revitalization of places such as Kumamoto.
As digitization grows in Japan, as everywhere, temporary access models begin to take the place of permanent ownership. As a result, we might expect a diminishing of the emotional attachment to the tangibility of objects. However, Japan remains committed, more than many markets in the world, to the power and meaning of the physical object. From its unbroken tradition of kodawari and craft, through the missing family photos of Tohoku, to everyday business rituals and the temple to the printed word that is T-site, Japan continues to invest the tangible with intangible power.
Article by Chris Francis